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  • How Columbus, Indiana Gets It

If you are interested in how progressive workforce and economic development initiatives can have a real and positive influence on solid employee skill building and the facilitation of meaningful K through 20 education environments throughout a geographic region, then look no further than Columbus, Indiana. This relatively little-known city with a population of about 77,000 has come to the forefront of my research as an interesting and innovative place where the creation of unique collaborations between universities; community colleges; elementary and secondary schools; employers; local, state and county workforce and economic development agencies; and philanthropic foundations have brought about dynamic and positive workforce and economic development growth to a population from ten counties in Southeastern Indiana.

Much of that growth is being driven by an organization called Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015 (EcO15), which got its start through the concerted efforts of the Columbus-based Community Education Coalition (CEC), led by John Burnett. CEC is a unique partnership of education, business, and community leaders focused on aligning and integrating Southeastern Indiana’s community learning system with economic growth and a high quality of life. CEC partners include the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, the Columbus Area Visitors Center, the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corporation, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation, Purdue University College of Technology, Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus (IUPUC), and Ivy Tech Community College. Its board of directors includes prominent business leaders, including representatives from the internationally recognized and largest employer in the area, Cummins Inc.

I was introduced to CEC President and CEO John Burnett by my good friend and mentor Larry Warford, Senior Workforce Consultant for the League for Innovation in the Community College, an international organization dedicated to catalyzing the community college movement. Larry has about 40 years of experience in workforce development, so when he speaks, I listen. He also lives in Columbus. Larry explained to me how the EcO15 is a one-of-a-kind collaboration that you don’t see in most cities. “Most American cities have similar resources available to them, but they often operate with little or no collaboration across agencies, governments, municipalities, schools, colleges, and employers,” Larry explained. “Here in Columbus the CEC has become a force that brings together all the resources to the table to solve situations and challenges in order to make the community a better place to live and do business in.”

Funding Helps EcO15 Bring Together Large Collaborative Coalition of Important Education, Business and Association Professionals

Since it started in 2007, EcO15 has received generous funding from the Indianapolis-based, private philanthropic foundation Lilly Endowment Inc., which has provided $50 million in grants to two organizations to provide leadership, oversight and management support services: CEC, which received $38 million, and Heritage Fund – the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, which received $12 million.

EcO15 is focused on improving educational opportunities in careers associated with advanced manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality/tourism for Southeastern Indiana.  In advanced manufacturing, for instance, Southeast Indiana manufacturers, led by Cummins Inc., are projected to offer as many as 5,048 manufacturing jobs through 2018 - the highest number of job openings available in the region during this coming decade. These manufacturing jobs employ 30% of the workforce in Southeast Indiana and pay 20% higher than other industries. Another 20 percent of jobs available in the region are broken up evenly between healthcare and hospitality/tourism, making EcO15 an important workforce and economic development arm for 50 percent of all the jobs in Southeastern Indiana.

John explained to me how he and his colleagues at CEC visited with community foundation leaders from each of the ten counties. “We presented them with an opportunity to join together through a mutual exchange to focus on the development of educational initiatives that can help the communities grow, help industry prosper, and help the community foundation world shine a light on the all the important work they do. ” Today EcO15 is guided by a 40-member regional advisory council made up of representatives from each of the 10 counties, including leaders from community foundations, education institutions, workforce partners, private-industry employers, economic development organizations and government representatives.  

How Innovation Spurs More Innovation

Prior to starting EcO15, CEC was the force behind building the Columbus Learning Center, which is 130,000 square feet of classrooms, laboratories, and support services for more than 7,000 students of three separate institutions, all working in the same building: Indiana University Purdue University Columbus, Ivy Tech Community College Columbus and Purdue University College of Technology Columbus. In addition, CEC was instrumental in getting an Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence (AMCE) built. AMCE is a similar, but smaller, 43,000-square-foot facility also shared by the aforementioned institutions. The facility provides students with the opportunity to pursue education built around STEM fields by providing educational facilities and equipment to support post-secondary preparation and skills training for manufacturing and related industries.

Initiatives such as these have helped to give the city of Columbus some national recognition.  Recently Columbus was  named the nation’s best metro area for economic and job growth out of 365 MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas)  by Area Development Magazine, which noted that “the city has averaged one corporate expansion announcement a month since 2010, creating 1,840 jobs, and current employment figures there are the third highest on record.  Columbus had the nation's 4th-highest GDP growth in 2010 (the most recent figures available). ”

Moreover, Columbus has been recognized by the Christian Science Monitor as a top city for job growth, and AARP listed Columbus as one of its top 10 affordable cities.

So, yes, there are some positive stories to tell about America’s jobs and economy. They exist in places like Columbus, Indiana where everyone works together, not separately, to spur growth.

About the Author

George Lorenzo

George Lorenzo is president of Lorenzo Associates, Inc., and writer, editor and publisher of The SOURCE on Community College Issues, Trends & Strategies, a rich information resource dedicated to the postsecondary education sector.  He has more than 25 years experience as a professional education writer, editor, researcher and publisher. 

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